History For The Interactive Generation

As a film student in Vienna in the early 1970s, Titus Leber wrote his doctoral thesis on a quirky technique for superimposing images. The method had first been used to evoke drama and motion in silent movies. "It was usually reserved for dream and madness sequences," Leber recalls.

These days, the fervid filmmaker is bringing together all the cinematic tricks he has mastered in the past 20 years--plus some new ones. Leber, 42, is mounting the most ambitious interactive multimedia project ever: telling the 3,000-year history of Europe on a series of eight CD-ROM computer disks. When completed, in 1995, people will be able to search though six hours of video, some 70,000 images, 2,500 maps, and 25,000 pages of text. Dubbed Eurodisc and funded in part by IBM, the project is turning the heads of those who specialize in this new electronic medium. "If Leber pulls this off, it will be a landmark event in publishing history," declares Peter R. Cook, head of creative services at Grolier Electronic Publishing Inc.

The Eurodisc effort also illustrates the complications and risks ef the new medium. Not only must Leber secure rights to use photos, art images, film clips, and news footage, but he also must make all of it compelling for students and other consumers. The project's $12 million budget puts it in a league with Hollywood movies rather than typical multimedia efforts, and in the tradition of independent filmmakers, Leber and IBM risk failure unless they can raise more financing.

MODERN ROYALTIES. IBM Europe has put up an initial $1 million, and along with Leber, hopes to attract a partner, possibly French publisher Matra-Hachette, to form a pan-European electronic publishing company. Having seen IBM fumble multimedia efforts in the U.S., European managers are determined not to fly solo in the new market. "We see in Titus a way to take a fast leap forward," says Haakon Skaarer, multimedia program manager at IBM Europe.

Leber's biggest leap may be his way around the industry's copyright conundrum. Publishers usually pay up-front fees--typically $150 per photo and $5,500 per minute of film--to reproduce material electronically. That would make Eurodisc untenable. Leber proposes setting aside 15% of sales for royalties to be split by agencies and other sources. Copyright holders at first were apprehensive, but Leber has won over a half-dozen key sources, including Paris photo agencies SIPA, Gamma, and Explorer. "We're taking a risk," explains Explorer Director Michel Bunz. "But fixing the value of electronic rights is so difficult that we have to show some imagination."

Leber was diverted to multimedia from making art films in 1984. That's when he won a fellowship to the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of his first efforts, called Vienna Interactive, lets users navigate the boulevards and museums of the old Hapsburg capital.

After seeing the Vienna disk in late 1991, IBM managers bought into Leber's new vision: a multicultural view of history that transcends traditional nationalism. To understand differing religious views of the 16th century, for example, a Eurodisc user will simply select from a menu the picture of Henry VIII, Martin Luther, or Pope Leo X to hear a narration or read quotations from his writing. "The idea is to break away from the tunnel vision of national history," Leber says.

"SHOVELWARE"? Moving from Vienna to Paris, Leber went to work in an IBM high-rise, developing ways to guide viewers through three millenniums of information. The big risk is producing "shovelware"--disks loaded with so much poorly organized information that the user gets lost in an electronic maze.

To give Eurodisc a "spine," Leber is creating a data base of key historical and cultural images for every country as an entry point for each year. Selecting a portrait of Napoleon, for example, might lead you to France in 1804 and information on the Battle of Austerlitz. There might be a clip of the battle from Abel Gance's 1927 film, Napoleon.

Among Leber's cinematic tricks: a two-minute montage of rapid-fire images and music to present the highlights of each of 17 major periods. "History has to be hot if it's going to capture people of the video generation," Leber says.

Making Eurodisc hot enough for schools and universities to pay up is another matter. The pricing will be at least $110 per disk for the main overview disk and the seven covering various regions. To stir up excitement among education ministries and public institutions, IBM and Leber's company, Iconomics, organized a Eurodisc presentation last June for 46 representatives, including some ambassadors, from European nations. Suddenly, doors swung open: Governments offered access to national archives. Germany, Greece, and Turkey proposed co-funding or sponsoring product tests in their schools. Meanwhile, Leber tapped contacts in the European Parliament to help back the Eurodisc for school curriculums. And he has aroused the interest of such potential distributors as Simon & Schuster Inc. in the U.S. and Dentsu Inc. in Japan.

Even so, IBM is trying to keep the sales goals modest. Skaarer is hoping to sell 175,000 Eurodisc packages to schools and public institutions in five years, reaching sales of $210 million. IBM insists that Leber should publish Eurodisc for popular CD-ROM players, whose number is expected to grow tenfold by 1996, to about 3.3 million units in Europe. Leber, however, prefers videodisks because they are able to handle larger segments of full-motion video. "It's the old fight between producer and director," says Leber.

One way or another, Eurodisc will be made, says Matra-Hachette executive Jean-Pierre Croset. The combination of Leber's vision and such a meaty subject, Croset says, should be a "turning point in the evolution of multimedia." That's if Leber and IBM can keep the new industry in focus.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.